April 23, 2024

Let's Talk Illustrators #288: Uma Krishnaswamy

I am so happy I had a chance to talk to Uma Krishnaswamy, illustrator of Look! Look!, written by Uma Krishnaswami. We talk about creating a companion to a book twelve years later, including the challenges and rewards that come with the process. Enjoy!

About the book:
When a girl discovers a slab of stone on a weedy patch of land, she calls to her friends, "Look! Look!" The children clear away the weeds and garbage and find more stones. They call their families to come and see and begin to dig around the stones. Word travels to villages nearby, and more and more people join in, until the digging reveals steps that lead down to an ancient well. At the bottom, there's even a little water! When the rains come, they cause an underground spring to flow once again, filling the ancient well with fresh, clean water and greening the surrounding fields.

Let's talk Uma Krishnaswamy!

LTPB: How did you become the Look! Look! and the 2012 companion title Out of the Way! Out of the Way!? What were the first images that popped into your mind when you saw Uma Krishnaswami’s text?

UK: Uma Krishnaswami and I go a little way back before the books came onto the scene. Our meeting was a case of mistaken identity, thanks to our nearly similar names. Given that we were on either side of children’s book creation, when Uma came up with the manuscript for Out of the Way! Out of the Way! she thought I would be decent match for the visuals. So here I am, a couple of years down the road travelling along with Look! Look!

Uma’s manuscript reached me at a time when stepwell rejuvenation was being actively talked about and pursued in India. Several projects had been completed and more are in the pipeline today. It is something that is being taken very seriously and this book captures the scenario quite beautifully, the discoveries being made across India and the public efforts to bring ‘their’ stepwell back to life.

LTPB: What did you find most difficult in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?

UK: This question of what was most difficult and most rewarding, incidentally, works for both the books. When you read the simple, rhythmic text, it carries you gently, at times at a racy raucous pace, to the last page. But therein lies the difficulty for the artist. So much has been left unsaid that needs to be said in those largeish empty patches of paper! The counter narrative in images has to articulate what has been implied matching the tone of the text. Where the scene involved villagers, for example, it was relatively easier to compose. The challenge lay in depicting the various aspects of the stepwell, as it slowly revealed itself to the children. This is a village stepwell. Not the architecturally aesthetic and stunning stepwells found across India. So, no eye-catching sculptures, motifs and designs could be woven into the visuals. Details normally fascinate children and keeps the interest going, even if the text doesn’t say much.

But in this case, it was a dusty, forgotten stepwell in some small village. Moreover, colours across several spreads had to be limited to greys, browns and ochre to match the antiquity and disuse of the buried treasure. Not the most eye-catching colours. So it did require some degree of brainstorming to come up with a visual that would not allow the reader’s (child, in this case) interest to flag. A lot of back and forth with the editors and author on reference images and later on page composition helped.

Most rewarding is that Look! Look! came together as was envisaged, more or less. Like I mentioned, it is teamwork that brings it to its final avatar. Hopefully our efforts will be recognised.

LTPB: How do you keep your process fresh with every new book? What is the first thing you do when you receive a new project? Are there any topics or stories in particular you’re still hoping to explore in the future?

UK: There is an obvious underlying style, perhaps one of the many reasons, an illustrator is selected to work on a particular book. Beyond that, the stories somehow seem to suggest that a certain tone suits the narrative better. This voice, grows louder as the work progresses. Some choices are deliberate, like colour, but beyond a very basic sketch the art spreads itself across the pages organically. Most details are unplanned.

When I get a story, one of the first things I do is research, visually, and on the subject. Research lends authenticity to what will always have a degree of artistic licence. I also owe it to the author who would have put in hours and hours of work towards the story.

Am open to any topic, there is no one particular subject over another. Though what I would love to explore is stories from backgrounds other than India. At the moment those opportunities are not open in many quarters.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

UK: I use a combination of poster and acrylic colours, with water colours and inks at times, a mix of gouache and washes, worked in layers. The rOtring pen comes in handy for line work. This technique has been my preferred medium over a period of time.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

UK: As I am in between commissioned projects, I am experimenting with images based on my travels in India, the local stories and landscapes of these places.

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

UK: I haven’t particularly thought of a biography, but I do know fascinating stories can be woven whether the character is a real-life hero/heroine or a fictional one. One of my favourite reads was and is, A Day in the Life of Maya of Mohenjo-daro by Mulk Raj Anand, illustrated by Pulak Biswas. Despite newer and newer excavations and discoveries of the 5000 year plus Indus Valley cities and towns, my idea of the life and times of Mohenjo-daro will always be the simple and outstanding pictures created by Pulak Biswas.

Thank You! Thank you! to Uma for taking time to answer some questions! Look! Look! published earlier this month from Groundwood Books!

Special thanks to Uma and Groundwood Books for use of these images!

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